Say What?

My wife Pat is one of the best-informed people I know. She’s a university professor, a voracious reader, and a deep and nuanced thinker. Her vocabulary is vast. When we’re sitting and reading I inevitably ask her to clarify something I come across. My question might be about the court of King Henry VIII, or Greek philosophy, or simply a word that’s unfamiliar to me – and she always seems to know the answer. It’s like being married to a search engine. (And, yes, it’s true: she really was a contestant on “Jeopardy!”)

But a few years ago Pat got involved in a nonprofit community project funded by a foundation, and that work brought her into the unfamiliar world of nonprofit speak. Suddenly I was the mentor, and she was the student.

One evening over dinner she recounted her confusion at a recent meeting. “They kept talking about a 30,000-foot view. What were they talking about?”

“You know: the big picture,” I explained.  “An overall sense of where things are headed.”

“But some people also talked about the 10,000-foot view. And the 20,000-foot view. One guy even talked about the 50,000-foot view. What’s the difference?”

“Nothing, really. The point is, it means you’re not in the weeds.”

“In the what?”

“The weeds. Too involved with the details. Not big-picture enough.”

“Is it always bad to be in the weeds?”

“No. Sometimes if you’re not clear enough at describing the details of your program to funders, they’ll ask for greater granularity.”

(End of conversation.)

As someone all too fluent in nonprofit speak, I now offer Pat and other non-native speakers additional items for their glossary:

Scaling up,” or going to scale.” Simply put, when a program develops a way to serve significantly more people, perhaps by creating a template or a franchise model so that what they do is (more jargon!) replicable. (Look for more about scaling up in my next post. Spoiler alert: it’s not always such a good idea.)

Moving the needle.” What supposedly happens when you scale up: that is, changing outcomes (presumably for the better). If you run a tutoring program, and you grow from 20 kids to 2,000 kids, and test scores in your city rise as a result, you are said to have moved the needle. (Note to readers: be extremely skeptical of claims of moved needles. It’s damned hard for a nonprofit, or a group of nonprofits, to move needles.)

Drilling down.” Going deeper into an issue. It may mean providing complementary services around a particular issue (a housing group that decides to provide financial training, for example). Or it may mean ascertaining why certain problems are cropping up, and addressing those root causes, a process that is also referred to as going upstream.

Out over your skis.” You got a little ahead of yourself in your activities and have landed in trouble with your stakeholders. (Stakeholders are all the people who get mad at you if you take actions, however well intended, without first getting their buy-in.)

Ground-truthing.” Making sure that what you’re theoretically planning to do has some relationship to reality. A friend of mine recently defined ground-truthing rather crudely but accurately: “It’s asking a few questions to make sure you don’t have your head up your a__.” (Note: If someone uses the phrase “ground-truthing” without any semblance of irony, run – do not walk! – as far away as possible, as quickly as possible.)

This only scratches the surface of nonprofit speak’s rich and mind-numbing vocabulary. Truth be told, some of these phrases work pretty well for me (“drilling down,” for example), but some (“ground-truthing”) make my teeth hurt.

Audience participation time: What are examples of nonprofit speak that drive you nuts? Send in your comments. And remember: I’m seeking granularity here!

Now, signing off, from 30,000 feet…

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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14 Comments. Leave new

  • Loved your dictionary, Al. “Ground-truthing” is a new one to me. I wonder if it has any relation to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”…..

  • Hope Jordan
    July 30, 2013 9:40 am

    A friend sent me this Philanthropy Jargon Generator last year:

  • I’m still laughing! I’ll keep this top of mind as we work to build capacity in the sector seeking legacy gifts from high net worth prospects….

  • Jeanine Tousignant
    July 30, 2013 10:10 am

    Don’t forget “capacity building” and “human capital”!

  • Locally, I’m hearing “turning the curve” which means work that changes the indicator from going the wrong direction to improving a condition. Drawn from “Results Based Accountability” models.

  • Rosalie Sheehy Cates
    July 30, 2013 10:29 am

    You really unpacked these terms Al.

  • While “ROI” doesn’t only apply to the nonprofit sector, it’s certainly better than “Bang for your buck”. I can’t believe anyone still uses the latter and as for the former, let’s hope we all focus on the metrics of results for investment.

  • Laura Simoes
    July 30, 2013 8:22 pm

    Being out over your skis when skiing means you are gaining speed and feeling confident. I like that definition better. Also, no baseball or other sport analogies here? How about a column on those?

    • Pat, the inspiration of this column, agrees with you: she thinks sports metaphors a) should be defined to those who are not fans, and b) should never be used, period. Stay tuned…

  • Vicky Stein
    July 30, 2013 9:39 pm

    Al…..I loved your blog and just had to add my two cents … favorite and over used word in nonprofit speak is “leverage” or leveraging” when referring to attracting other sources of capital to a project. But please – provide a better defintiion for those of us that like the sound of nails on a chalk board!

  • “paradigm”. Let’s take it out ofthe dictionary. Best, Woolsey Conover

  • I’m at a retreat and the jargon from the consultants that did the “environmental scan” and our internal people (“stakeholders?”) is making me fall asleep because it’s mind-numbing. Don’t forget doing a “deep dive” and “bubble up” has been used many times. I’m new to this industry and it’s so stupid. Is it meant to make things that are boring sound more interesting? Or raise the importance of something with little significance??


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